Before I was a cancer patient, I was healthy, fit, and as my husband often said, “out of his league.” Though I wouldn’t say I staked my entire identity on the way my body looked and performed, I was very comfortable with it the way it was. Then cancer changed everything.
Oftentimes, cancer changes your body before you even know you have cancer. That was the case for me; the symptoms I showed from my stage III colorectal cancer turned my body into a stranger. I didn’t recognize it anymore. Once the colonoscopy and follow-up scans confirmed that I was indeed battling a tumor that was trying to kill me, my brain changed because of the trauma. Cancer changed my body in both obvious and veiled ways. I have been hacked to bits, I pooped out of my stomach for six months, my hormones are whacked, and I have a brand-new digestive tract that behaves in a new, very delicate manner. From top to bottom, brain to soles, my body is forever changed by cancer.
The first and most obvious way cancer has ravaged my body is displayed across the tapestry of my skin, particularly my torso and abdomen. I have a scar from my port that has turned into a keloid that itches all the time. I have a horizontal scar below my belly button from which 12 centimeters of my colon were removed. Possibly the unsightliest scar that I boast is one from my former ileostomy (where I pooped out of my stomach during treatment). These scars and I have a complicated relationship; the causes of each of them are ultimately what saved my life, so of course I have deep gratitude for them. But they also serve as a daily reminder of my mortality and the curse of my vanity that is somehow still intact after everything I have experienced. When my husband sees all of me, the woman who was once “out of [his] league,” I feel self-conscious. I feel hacked up and unattractive.
Cancer has left my digestive system as a wasteland. It has been through a lot. Now, my small and large intestines are more temperamental than a three-year-old in front of a bowl of broccoli. If I don’t want to spend hours in the bathroom on any given day (and really, who has that kind of time?) I have to scrutinize my diet with the utmost precision. If a food item has dairy, grease, too much fiber, not enough fiber, or fill in the blank, my body will revolt. I will be chained to the toilet for—not exaggerating, though I wish I was—hours on end. This gets in the way of my job (I’m an elementary school teacher and often scrambling to find fellow teachers to cover my classroom for bathroom emergencies), my parenting (my kids are used to waiting an excruciatingly long time for me to get out of the bathroom and play with them or see their newest LEGO creations), and, the biggest change of all, my relationship with my husband.
My appearance, my delicate bowels, and my consequent waning sanity all work together against me in one specific part of my life: my sex life. As if my new scarred appearance and feisty set of intestines weren’t enough to bring down the mood in the bedroom, there are other internal changes from cancer and treatment that contribute to this issue as well. It’s like a perfect storm for a sexuality crisis.
My chemotherapy treatment completely shut down my ovaries; I was thrown into early menopause when I was only 33 years old. Hormonally (and, let’s call a spade a spade here, traumatically) post-cancer and treatment, my body couldn’t care less about any sort of sexual activity. As far as my body is concerned, the sex shop is closed for good. The amount of mental gymnastics required to get me “in the mood” is enough to program an entire summer Olympics. As if that isn’t frustrating enough, that’s just from the chemo. Radiation wreaked— and continues to wreak two years outside of treatment—its own havoc on my body.
Did you know that once radiation treatment is over, the actual radiation isn’t? Sounds confusing, but it’s true. Long after the big machine is finished zapping you with its tumor shrink ray, the radiation continues to work its dark magic within your body. For me, this meant everything in my pelvis shrank. Yeah, everything. Suddenly, sexual intercourse was no longer an enjoyable or pleasurable way for my husband and I to connect like it used to be. The radiation side effects made it painful and scary. Oftentimes, there was blood. A lot of it. I would shed tears, and my husband would crumple over in horror at the scene of hurting me so intensely. Along with the physical pain came some serious emotional pain, too. The reality of what we were going through just wasn’t fair. Cancer never is.
Of course, when all is said and done, my husband and I prefer me sexually inept and still alive, as opposed to the alternative, but still. Thankfully, I’m pretty stubborn, so I was determined not to let the cancer win here. At some point, I realized that while I may not be able to change my body post-cancer, I could change my mind. So, I chose to do just that. I reoriented my posture from focusing on what I couldn’t control to what I could, and started to change my body beginning with my brain.
I chose to go on a shopping spree for new underwear that, while it can’t cover my scars, makes me feel attractive and sexy. I also purchased vaginal dilators and used them religiously to combat the effects of radiation. I consciously pursued other means of sexual connection with my husband. I reached out to my medical team and was able to get prescribed hormone therapy to slog against the side effects of menopause. I researched natural remedies and supplements and took them all. In a bold (and some may say “woo woo”) move, I even got my hands on certain crystals that are supposed to encourage female sexuality. Whether it’s all in my head or not, it’s working. I am not exaggerating when I say that I was willing to do whatever it would take to come back into my body in this way, telling cancer that it isn’t the boss of me and my physiology.
As of this writing, I feel comfortable saying that I am finally back in control of my body, because I have taken control of my mind. I have made an intentional choice to move forward post-cancer in a way that allows me to interact with my body as it is, in this new normal. I have made peace with the things I cannot control— the scarring and the way the scars are healing, the volatility of my insides, and the after effects of treatment—and I have committed to focusing on the things I am actually in control of.
Now, excuse me. I have to get to the next underwear sale at Target!